When John Key insists that any New Zealand military contribution to the anti-Islamic State coalition will be “behind the wire” in non-combat training roles, he is following a script written by the senior partners in that coalition–the US, UK, Australia, Canada and Germany. The governments of all of these liberal democracies have sworn off ground combat troops while simultaneously sending air power and significant numbers of ground-based military “advisors” to attack the Islamic State forces directly from the air and help train the Iraqi Army to fight rather than run from the Islamicists on the ground. The US already has a brigade’s (3000 troops) worth of advisors in Iraq and has asked Australia to up its contribution from the 200 Special Forces already deployed there. Â The UK, Canada, Germany, France and other European states are contributing special operators as well, but always in a â€training” rather than combat role.
There are reasons to believe that the definition of the mission as “non-combat” is specious at best and a deliberate misrepresentation at worst. Here is why.
Consider this: The Prime Minister has said that he might send the SAS to help guard the bases in which conventional NZDF advisors will help train the Iraqi Army. That is akin to using a Lamborghini Â to haul rubbish to the local tip.
SAS personnel are highly skilled, extremely well trained and acutely specialised in operating in hostile theatres and behind enemy lines. They are a precious military resource that takes a long time to develop into hardened professional soldiers. It costs much more to produce an SAS trooper than it does the average infantry soldier, airman or naval rating. Standing them on guard duty squanders their talents, especially when conventional NZDF personnel are quite capable of standing sentry duty while deployed (as they did in Afghanistan during the decade-long deployment to the Provincial Reconstruction Team located in Bamiyan Province).
The last time the SAS was in a publicly acknowledge training role they were serving as mentors to the Afghan Crisis Response Unit, the elite counter-terrorism squad in that country. In their capacity as “mentors” the SAS wound up leading the CRU into several battles and lost two troopers as a result. Even in the face of those deaths the National government insisted that the SAS was not engaged in combat, so perhaps it has a different understanding of kinetic environments than do most people–most importantly those who have felt the impact of hot lead during “non combat” operations.
Military deployments of any sort require time and preparation, a process that takes months. Even rapid response units like the SAS need time to get ready to deploy, and to do so they need to pre-position assets on the way and in the theater to which they are going. Yet given the circumstances, the fight against the Islamic State is an immediate concern, one that the US and other coalition partners say needs a response in a few weeks, not months.
It is not credible to assert that sending a few military planners over to Iraq twelve days ago will allow them to assess within a few weeks what the NZDF contribution should beâ€”unless that has already been decided and it is the logistics of the deployment that are being worked out. Yet the Prime Minister says that he will wait until their return to decide what the NZDF role will be. That seems to be stretching the truth.
Beyond the possibility that Mr. Key is unaware of the role of different military units and the preparations required to deploy them abroad, the fiction of a non-combat ground role for all coalition partners is made evident by where they are going. Two thirds of Iraq and all of Syria are active conflict zones. This includes most of the North and Western provinces of Iraq well as the outskirts of Baghdad. The Islamic State continues to mount offensive operations throughout the North and West of Iraq, and controls Mosul, Kirkuk (including its oil fields) and Ramadi (the capital of Anbar Province). Â Islamic State forces are laying siege to Fallujah, the scene of the most intense battle between US forces and Sunni militias during the Iraq occupation. Â Although they have been slowed by coalition air strikes and suffered a few tactical defeats, the larger picture is that at present the Islamic State has momentum and is nowhere close to retreat in the areas that it controls.
That means that any coalition ground forces sent to train the Iraqi military will be based in active conflict zones and become primary targets wherever they are located. Knowing this, coalition military commanders operate with the expectation of being attacked. Coalition personnel are and will be armed at all times and confined to base or will have their freedom of movement greatly restricted while in theatre. They will travel in armed convoys or by air when moving between locations. Leave will be minimal.
These are the operational rules governing troop deployments in active war zones.
The only way to ease the combat conditions in which New Zealand troops will operate is to prepare and launch counter-offensives against the Islamic State that forces it to retreat from territory it now occupies or has infiltrated. That is a big task and not a short-term affair. Since the Iraqi Army has shown appalling lack of discipline and courage in the face of the Islamic State offensive, it is wishful to think that sending in a few thousand advisors and giving it a few weeks training is going to turn the tide. Instead, the up skilling of the Iraqi Army will be a protracted effort and will require coalition military leadership under fire. Even that does not guarantee that Iraqi troops will be willing to fight.
The reason that the Western liberal democracies are holding to the fiction of non-combat roles is that their respective electorates are weary of war and generally opposed to more of it. This is, after all, a fight amongst Sunni Arabs first and foremost, and then Sunni versus Shiia in the second instance. Although the weakness of Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria gave them their strategic opportunity, the Islamic State’s primary targets are the pro-Western Sunni Arab oligarchies. Its second target is Persian Iran and its Shiia co-religionists and proxies in the Arab world (including the Assad regime). The West (and Israel) are convenient foils for its ambitions, as the Western media plays up the atrocities perpetrated against Europeans and North Americans and the involvement of Western extremists in committing them. This allows the Islamic State to draw the West into the fight, thereby making the conflict more inter-religious and civilisational than it really is.
Although primordial in nature and capable of spawning small cell and lone-wolf attacks in the West, the Islamic State is a regional rather than global threat. It cannot project sustained force and control territory outside of Sunni-inhabited terrain in Syria and Iraq, and will have trouble defeating established professional militaries such as those of Egypt, Jordan or Turkey should it try to push further afield. It has not been able to make significant advances in Shiia and Kurdish-controlled territory. Yet media coverage and the rush of Western governments to emphasize the threat of Islamic State-inspired home grown jihadis and returning foreign fighters have exaggerated its impact.
Even so, New Zealand has principled and pragmatic reasons to get involved in the anti-Islamic State fight. The anti-Islamic State coalition includes all of New Zealandâ€™s Middle Eastern trade partners as well as its closest security and diplomatic allies. The responsibility to protect vulnerable populations such as the Iraqi Hazaris is a matter of international principle. New Zealand will soon sit on the UN Security Council. In light of these realities it can do nothing other than join the conflict even if it is not directly threatened by the Islamic State.
Now that New Zealand has committed to participate in the military coalition against the Islamic State, it is best for the government to be forthright about the true nature of the mission and the real threats involved. Anything less is an insult to both the intelligence of the pubic as well as the valor of those in uniform who are about to join the fight on its behalf.